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Progressive legislative candidates push inmate release measures during COVID crisis

June 1, 2020 David Brand
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A group of progressive legislative candidates are urging their would-be colleagues in Albany to prioritize a package of bills providing a pathway to freedom for inmates in COVID-plagued state prisons.

In a letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, seven candidates, each running in New York City Senate and Assembly districts, called on lawmakers to pass three pieces of legislation, which would facilitate release for older adults particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus and curtail the use of solitary confinement, where some sick inmates have been confined.

“With only one week left of the formal legislative session, it is unconscionable for New York’s legislature to ignore the plight of our loved ones, neighbors and constituents behind bars or propose legislation that fails to effectuate any meaningful change,” they wrote.

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The seven candidates include Khaleel Anderson in Queens Assembly District 31,  Jessica González-Rojas, candidate in Queens Assembly District 34, Zohran Kwame Mamdani in Queens Assembly District 36, Jabari Brisport in Brooklyn State Senate District 25, Emily Gallagher in Brooklyn Assembly District 50, Phara Souffrant Forrest in Brooklyn Assembly District 57 and Amanda Septimo in Bronx Assembly District 84.

The three pieces of legislation include an Elder Parole bill that would grant inmates aged 55 and older the right to a parole review hearing if they have served 15 or more years of their sentences.

A second bill, known as Fair and Timely Parole, would grant parole to inmates after they complete their minimum sentence, unless the review board determines there is a demonstrable reason to keep them behind bars.

The final bill, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, or HALT Solitary Act, would place strict limits on the use of solitary confinement.

At least 16 state prison inmates and four staff members have died of COVID-19, according to state data. Three-quarters of the inmates who died were black or Latinx.

Overall, 498 inmates and 1,274 staff members have so far tested positive for the illness.

In the letter, the candidates also push back on what they call “weak, strictly cosmetic” prisoner release legislation being considered by state lawmakers. The bill text says the measure would establish “emergency release protocols during a time of crisis,” but opponents say it does not grant Gov. Andrew Cuomo any powers that he does not already have.

“We call on you to pass urgently needed reforms to save lives behind bars,” the candidates wrote.

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